- Sarah Leavitt, author and illustrator of Tangles, her memoir about her mother, who died of Alzheimer’s disease;
- Nick Bantock, perhaps best known for his Griffin and Sabine books, the first of which came out in 1991 and the most recent of which—the seventh in the series—was released this year; and
- Johnnie Christmas, author and illustrator of Firebug, who recently collaborated with Margaret Atwood on the graphic novel Angel Catbird.
Herbert Rosengarten is a professor emeritus and former head of UBC’s English department. A textual editor and authority on the work of the Brontës, he contributed to The Oxford Companion to the Brontës and co-compiled the entry on the Brontës in The Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature. Rosengarten spoke at a recent Editors BC meeting about textual criticism and scholarly editing.
Textual editors study the creation of a literary work from manuscript to print and through its various editions. They also supplement the text with annotations, translations, and explanations of allusions or quotations that the reader might not be familiar with. “The goal is to present all the information a person needs to understand and interpret the work,” said Rosengarten. Continue reading “Herbert Rosengarten—The tyranny of the copytext: the trials and tribulations of textual editing (Editors BC meeting)”
Building on last year’s inaugural event, Cheryl Stephens and Kate Harrison Whiteside put together a full day of sessions at Communication Convergence 2015, most of them looking at the ways technology has affected writing, publishing, and other means of communication.
Fawn Mulcahy—How has technology changed how we communicate?
Fawn Mulcahy has more than twenty years of public relations experience and has taught PR at Langara College and Simon Fraser University. At Communication Convergence she talked about how technology has changed the way we communicate and why we need to do our best to keep up.
Her advice about language and communication isn’t based on linguistics—“I’m not a linguist!” she disclaimed—but is informed by her interactions with her students and her seventeen-year-old step-daughter. Millennials will make up 44% of the workforce by 2020, and their communication is all digital. We have to get comfortable working in that space and learn the language of shortcuts like acronyms, emoticons, and emojis so that we can all work effectively with one another.
Technology is how we tell our stories, and we’re relying more and more on imagery, which can instantaneously and effortlessly communicate emotion and attitude. In presentations, images are key to avoiding “death by PowerPoint”: “If you have slides of black-and-white text in bullet points, you’ll lose them.”
More people have mobile phones than desktop computers, and youth have abandoned email in favour of communicating through their phones and on social media, which encourages all of us to keep our communications brief, simple, and short. That said, “we still need to honour communication,” said Mulcahy. Exclamation marks, all caps, and smiley faces have no place in a professional email, and we still have to differentiate between language used in texting and standard written English. People accustomed to writing for the 110 to 150 million blogs out there sometimes don’t understand why they can’t keep the same voice for everything they write.
When asked how technology has affected her teaching, Mulcahy admitted that it has shortened attention spans. “It’s tempting on computers to multitask,” she said. “An average person checks their phones 150 times a day—it’s a tic you can’t control.”
As an instructor, “You feel like a dancing bear—you have to entertain them to keep them listening and engaged.” In every classroom, “60 percent will think you’re an idiot, 20 percent will love you, and 20 percent are on the fence. You’re trying to win over that 20 percent.”
“Teach to one person,” Mulcahy advised. “Find your friend in the room. You can’t please everybody.”
How has technology changed relationships between writer, editor, and publisher? (panel discussion)
Editor, writer, and instructor Frances Peck moderated a discussion between Roberta Rich, author of The Harem Midwife and The Midwife of Venice and Paula Ayer, managing editor at Annick Press’s Vancouver office, about how technology has changed the publishing landscape.
“The biggest shift is that everything is electronic,” said Ayer. “Editors no longer work on paper proofs. And everything is expected faster; I think we’re offloading more onto freelancers because there’s less and less time to do things in house. Editors become surrogates for the publishing house.”
Rich, in contrast, has stuck to hard copy. “As you can deduce from all of this,” she joked, “I really hate change.” Her first novel was edited in three rounds, but her most recent book was edited in two. “Part of it was that I learned from the mistakes I made in my first two books,” she said, explaining that her first draft was probably a little more polished. “But I’m very fortunate to have been published in Canada first, because in the U.S., publishing houses don’t have that kind of patience—to do a third pass.” U.S. publishers, said Rich, don’t want a fixer-upper. They want a finished product. “In order to get a publisher to read it at all…it has to be almost perfect. You pay for your own editor.”
Rich recommends Booming Ground, part of UBC’s non-credit creative writing program, which offers editing and manuscript evaluations for up to 120 pages. “Send in 60 pages a month, and they send you feedback. It’s very economical. For $500 you get a lot of work and very detailed criticism.”
Ayer warned about unscrupulous businesses exploiting people who want to get published. To counter some of the volatility, Ayer said, Annick relies on a core group of freelancers who know the brand and understand what kinds of books they publish. But she’s constantly feeling pressure to get projects done more quickly: “We need sales materials sooner, so we need a clear idea of the book and an illustrator very early on.”
Peck said that editor Barbara Pulling has also mentioned the contraction in time for each project and the pressure to turn then around more quickly. She used to have six months to go back and forth with the author to develop ideas, and now she doesn’t have that luxury. “As a reader,” said Peck, “I pick up books that feel that they’ve been rushed through and that have substantive issues.”
“Has there been a change in readership?” Peck asked the Ayer and Rich. “Are needs, expectations, and attention spans changing?”
Rich said, “I have a pretty clear idea of my readership—they’re primarily female. Fiction readers are generally female, between ages twenty and sixty. Unfortunately, I’ve been seeing fewer young readers and writers at events like writers’ festivals and book clubs.”
“Our market,” said Ayer, “is mostly schools and libraries, so we’re affected more by budget cuts.” And Annick’s books have changed: “We use more sidebars, more illustrations. We’ve redone books in graphic novel style to make them more visual. It doesn’t mean they’re dumbed down. We’re giving readers short bursts of information. We want it to be interesting and engaging.”
“People used to read the first few pages at a bookstore,” said Rich. “Now we have to hook the reader in the first couple of paragraphs.”
“The title and cover have to get people’s attention right away,” said Ayer.
“Let’s turn our conversation back to relationships,” said Peck. “Has technology made relationships easier or harder? Do you get to have any face-to-face interaction?”
Rich said that she talks to her editor on the phone, but whenever she’s in Toronto, her editor takes her out for lunch. “I have an old-fashioned relationship with my editor,” she said.
Ayer said, “We work with people from everywhere—New Zealand, Poland, Japan. There’s usually no chance for face-to-face communication. If they’re in town, we try to make time for a face-to-face meeting. Freelancers are usually only dealt with via email, but some are close enough to be friends on Facebook.” It’s tempting to resist face-to-face meetings from a time-management point of view, she said, but they can create a stronger relationship.
“What trends do you see on the horizon?” asked Peck.
“Publishers will be less willing to take risks and will try to take only sure bets,” said Ayer. “Publishers have become slaves to numbers,” said Rich. “They’re very numbers driven.”
“Publishers used to have the patience to develop a writer, but when a small house develops writers, often they just go to bigger houses,” said Ayer.
Peck noted that some authors are now intentionally going to smaller publishers because they know they’ll get personal attention. Some decide to self-publish. “Will there be a resurgence of smaller presses, or will they change their roles?
“Self-publishing is good for people who have a built-in audience,” said Ayer. “There’s a bit of a mentality that publishers and record labels will mess with your creative vision. But often things get better with other people’s input.”
Blake Desaulniers—We are all publishers now in the era of internet distribution and multimedia platforms
Blake Desaulniers is a writer, photographer, videographer, and content marketing expert who worked in magazines in the 1980s and saw the transition from wax paste-up to fully digital production. Today, anyone can be a publisher—but if you choose to go that route, know what you’re getting into and have a clear idea of what you’re trying to do with your publication.
“What do we expect from our audience?” said Desaulniers. “We want them to buy our product, buy into our ideas. Set goals to understand the nature of engagement you expect from your audience. Often people don’t look that far. They’re good at packaging and distributing, but once it’s out there, they don’t think about it.”
You should also have a clear concept of your publication so that you can develop a set of keywords. “The internet is Google,” said Desaulniers. “If you want to get to your audience, you’ve got to be good with Google. Understand from the outset what your keywords are going to be. They should inform every aspect of your publishing venture. In a sense, it’s branding.”
Next, look at audience development, which may be the hardest part of all. Subscriptions are expensive and hard to manage. “Getting a subscriber audience is the most difficult aspect of the game, whether you’re an individual or a large-scale commercial publisher.”
So what can we do to develop an audience? “Build an audience using social media,” said Desaulniers. Use personas—representations, including goals and behaviours, of who you want or expect your audience to be—to build your communication efforts. Make sure you develop your personas based on real data, though, not just speculation.
Marketing automation (like the kind services like HubSpot can provide) requires a large budget—about $25,000 a year—to manage, but a good system can provide everything you need to automate distribution of your content, including newsletters, emails, and social media. Most importantly, it provides granular tracking of anything anyone does. “People used to say, ’50 percent of my advertising works—I just don’t know which 50 percent.’ This kind of tracking ends that uncertainty.”
“Audience engagement is more important than number of views,” said Desaulniers, and it’s important to have reliable metrics of engagement for your content. Knowing what your readers are actually using means “You’re customizing information, not wasting resources on things people aren’t interested in. Turn your users into your sales force.”
I’ll be writing up Cheryl Stephens’s session about the hidden intricacies of the modern reading audience in a separate post. To volunteer for or contribute to future Communication Convergence events, get in touch with Kate Whiteside.
At the Vancouver ceremony for the 2014 Alcuin Awards, one of this year’s judges, Robin Mitchell Cranfield, moderated a lively panel discussion about the unique considerations in children’s picture book publishing. On the panel were:
- Cynthia Nugent, children’s book author, MA student in children’s literature, and illustrator of the acclaimed Mr. Got to Go series—the most recent of which, Mr. Got to Go, Where Are You? is shortlisted for the City of Vancouver Book Award;
- Julie Flett, award-winning author and illustrator who draws on her Cree-Métis background when producing such titles as Owls See Clearly at Night (Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak lii Swer): A Michif Alphabet (L’alphabet di Michif);
- Julie Morstad, winner of the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award and Governor General’s Award–nominated illustrator of Julia, Child, among many other books; and
- Sara Gillingham, author and illustrator of How to Grow a Friend, among other titles, and art director and designer, previously at Chronicle Books and now at her own studio.
Nugent began with a bit of background about children’s picture books—a timeless form that’s actually not all that old, emerging in the Victorian era as toy books meant as novelties to entertain children. According to Barbara Bader, a scholar in the field of children’s literature, “A picturebook is text, illustrations, total design; an item of manufacture and a commercial product; a social, cultural, historic document; and foremost, an experience for a child.” Nugent explained that whereas a storybook can be completely understood without images, a picture book’s narrative results from the interaction of words and pictures. Reading a picture book is not a linear process; children will flip the pages backward and forward as they try to make sense of the story.
A picture book’s words and images interact in three ways, said Nugent:
- enhancement, where they complement one another and are not redundant—the words and pictures fill in different details;
- alternation, where words and pictures take turns telling the story—seen most often when the author is also the illustrator; and
- contradiction, where the words and pictures do not agree—a tension that creates humour or irony.
Nugent aspires to this contradictory symbiosis of words and images, because “teaching humour is an essential life skill.” Contradiction can reveal an unreliable or naive narrator and thus playfully empowers readers with knowledge that the narrator doesn’t have.
Children may be the readers of picture books, said Mitchell Cranfield, but who are the buyers? And how do they affect the way picture books are marketed? Gillingham replied that the interesting thing about a children’s book as a product is that there are gatekeepers: parents, teachers, and librarians choose which books to put into kids’ hands. The book must appeal to both the children and the people giving the book to the children.
The cover is the primary marketing tool, said Gillingham. “It can be a bit icky to think of the book as a product or to think about its cover as packaging, but we do want books to get into the hands of readers.” Children’s book authors and illustrators can expect their publisher’s marketing department to become involved in cover design because it is a sales tool. But unless the book can be tied to a holiday—say Mother’s Day or Father’s Day—the publisher typically won’t have the budget to do much marketing, and authors and illustrators are often expected to market their own books.
“How do we reach and represent the full community of children?” Mitchell Cranfield asked Flett. “Are there communities being underserved?”
“There are so many communities being underserved,” said Flett, including people who are LGBTQIA, people of colour, people with disabilities, and people from ethnic or cultural minorities. Published demographic data are hard to come by in Canada, but the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison releases statistics about children’s literature in the U.S., and it last reported that, in a sample of 5,000 books:
- 180 were written or illustrated by African Americans,
- 38 were by aboriginal authors or illustrators,
- 112 were by authors or illustrators of Asia-Pacific ancestry, and
- 66 were by Latinos.
For more representative diversity, said Flett, “we need more books written by the community member, not on behalf of that community member. We need these books in schools, homes, and communities.” Picture books that feature diversity are often what Flett considers “tourist books,” which may focus on holidays, for instance. There is much less about everyday life. Flett would like to see books that are now shelved in the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit section of the bookstore also in other sections, because “ultimately they are, like the majority of books, about humanity. And if we do not include diverse books, we’re implicitly exclusive.” She recalled an interaction she had with a young reader—a foster child—who was excited to discover that the main character of The Moccasins was also a foster child. Flett made the case for diverse books in all genres so that children with all sorts of backgrounds and experiences have characters they can relate to.
Mitchell Cranfield asked Morstad what children’s books mean to her. As a parent who loves art and design, Morstad replied, she’s interested in books that appeal to both children and adults—“books that tackle big subjects and that don’t underestimate children’s understanding of big subjects” like the emotions that come with death or sex or depression, for example. She enjoys books that are “deceptively simple but have philosophical or more complex components.”
“Kids have questions, and some are hard to answer,” Morstad said. “A book can be a great place for those conversations to happen.”
Mitchell Cranfield talked about her own work adapting a book for a TV show and remarked that when you’re reading with a child, “content gets presented to children in a filtered way.” Children can let you know when it’s too much for them. With a TV show, she had to be more careful about making sure the content would be “safe” to a broad group of viewers.
Flett likes the idea of empowering children in books. In Dolphin SOS (winner of the 2015 Christie Harris Illustrated Children’s Literature Prize), for example, the youth are themselves involved with the rescue in the story. Flett also mentioned Simon Ortiz’s The People Shall Continue, recently featured on the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog. Ortiz’s storytelling presents the history of Indigenous peoples, including treaties and reservations, in a matter-of-fact way, never once using the word “plight.” The book reflected how people simply tell each other stories: “These are the stories; these are the songs.”
Mitchell Cranfield asked Gillingham how changes in production have changed book illustration, design, and content. “What does the future of children’s book design look like?”
Gillingham said that digital art in children’s books “used to look a lot more digital.”
“I appreciate illustrators who continue to use their hands but use digital tools to make the process of making a book easier,” she said. “I love when there’s still evidence of the hand.”
Gillingham recalled when, not that long ago, illustrators had to send, nervously, their original artwork via courier, when there was always a possibility of loss or damage. “I love that we don’t have to worry about those things now,” she said.
As for the future of children’s book design, “I see it getting less compartmentalized,” she said. Traditionally, authors and illustrators were kept separate, but “I see that breaking down. Authors and illustrators are finding each other.”
“I see illustrators becoming more design savvy,” she added, speculating that the change might be tool driven, as more illustrators work in the digital realm. They’re more conscientious about page composition and the interaction between type and illustrations.
Nugent agreed that the process is much more collaborative. She said that she felt editorial pressure to create a sleepy-time ending to one of her books, When Cats Go Wrong. “With cuts to libraries and schools,” she said, book publishers have refocused their marketing toward parents, and in North America, “a picture book is used to separate parent from child at the end of the day”—a function that books in other countries don’t have to have.
Nugent had to rework the last spread of her book, which had depicted an active scene, to create a more calm ending. She admits to resenting the request at first but came to realize that inspiration was bottomless: she could find it regardless of the constraints she faced. “People don’t like to think about marketing considerations, but we have to respect that people are putting money into producing the book.” she said. She ended by encouraging everyone to check out the IBBY Silent Books Exhibit featuring wordless picture books from around the world on at the Italian Cultural Centre until October 22.
What can you do for self-publishing authors who don’t have much to spend? Author and editor Vanessa Ricci-Thode shared some the strategies she’s used to help authors who can’t afford editing. Although she focused on fiction, many of her tips will apply to nonfiction projects as well.
Do a manuscript evaluation
For a flat fee, Ricci-Thode will evaluate a manuscript up to 100,000 words and provide the author with a topic-by-topic report outlining the main changes that the author should make to
- point of view
- mood or tone
She may also comment on other features, such as the story’s symbolism, humour, or reading level. Although she won’t edit the manuscript—and hence won’t mark it up—she will insert comment bubbles in the document so that authors can see examples of the kinds of problems they might consider fixing. Ricci-Thodes suggests using a “triage editing” mindset and tackling the biggest problems first.
To learn how write a constructive evaluation, Ricchi-Thodes suggests the seminar on fiction editing offered by EAC’s Toronto Branch or Ryerson University’s fiction-editing class.
If an author doesn’t have enough of their own money for editing, they could try raising enough money through crowdfunding platforms, including
Many of these platforms allow authors to connect with their readers by offering rewards for their sponsorship.
Suggest low-cost editing options (with a caveat)
If an author is desperate for editing, you could point them to low-cost editing options on freelancing sites such as Elance or even Fiverr. However, because many people claiming to be editors compete internationally for freelance contracts, these sites can be exploitative. Further, the quality of the editing will be a crapshoot.
Whatever you do, said Ricci-Thodes, don’t let an author talk you down. Don’t sell yourself—or your colleagues—short. You may be willing to reduce your rate to work on a particularly exciting project, but make sure your client knows the full value of the services you’re giving them.
Point authors to resources on writing and self-editing
For authors that need a lot of work, recommend books or websites that will help them hone their writing skills. During the session Ricci-Thodes listed the resources she recommends (her commentary in parentheses):
- The Artful Edit by Susan Bell
- Line by Line by Claire Kehrwald Cook (kind of dry but good for grammar)
- On Writing by Stephen King (good look at the process of writing; no examples or exercises)
- The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner (good for getting to know the editing process)
- The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman (one of Ricci-Thodes’s favourites; concise)
- Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass
- The Fiction Writer’s Workshop by Josip Novakovich (includes a lot of exercises—great for new writers)
- Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder (for film writing but also good for commercial fiction)
- The Kick-Ass Writer by Chuck Wendig
On style and grammar
- Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss
- The Canadian Press Stylebook
- The Chicago Manual of Style (good for nonfiction or academic writing; not so great for fiction)
- The Elements of Style by Strunk and White or The Elements of F*cking Style by Baker and Hansen
- The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn
- Better Novel Project
- Canadian Authors Association
- Chuck Wendig’s Terribleminds blog
- Fantasy Faction
- Inked Voices
- Helping Writers Become Authors
- SFWA Writer Beware
- Writer’s Digest
- Writers’ Union of Canada
Audience members chimed in with some of their own suggestions (in no particular order):
- The Careful Writer by Theodore M. Bernstein
- Editing Canadian English
- Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale
- Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King
- They Said / I Say (for academic writing but also good for popular nonfiction)
- Manuscript Makeover by Elizabeth Lyon
- The Art of Styling Sentences by K.D. Sullivan and Ann Longknife
- The Transitive Vampire and other books by Karen Elizabeth Gordon
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser
- Story Engineering by Larry Brooks
Also, encourage authors to join a critique group or writing circle that has experienced writers.
Offer mentoring or “mini-evaluation” sessions
Ricci-Thodes offers face-to-face meetings in which she can offer an author tips based on a short writing sample and answer specific editorial questions. She lets the clients set the agenda for the meetings, for which she charges hourly.
For more editor-recommended, editing-related resources, check out my blog post from our September 2014 EAC-BC meeting: Hitting the books: Professional development tips.
Veteran editor Laura Poole led a lively panel discussion about working with freelance editors. The other panellists were Carol Fisher Saller, who gave us an insider’s perspective from the University of Chicago Press, and Janet MacMillan, a long-time member of both the Editors’ Association of Canada and the Society for Editors and Proofreaders in the UK.
Poole now regularly subcontracts work to an associate that she mentored, but she’s also found another source of subcontracting revenue simply by having an incorporated business. One of her clients enacted a new policy of not working with sole proprietors, which cut out a large chunk of their regular freelancers. These freelancers now invoice through Poole’s company, adding a markup to their totals to pay Poole for her services.
The books division at the University of Chicago Press publishes up to 300 books a year and has an in-house staff of fifteen editors, and 40 percent of the copy editing is done by freelancers. Saller told us that the press almost never approaches freelancers who haven’t contacted them first. They get plenty of resumes in the mail all the time and have many on file.
MacMillan said that she doesn’t like to use the term “subcontract” and prefers to think of other editors as associates or collaborators. She’ll reach out to other editors when she’s working on large projects or if she knows they have special expertise that she lacks.
MacMillan never charges a referral fee, saying “I’m exceedingly uncomfortable with it. A nice thank you would be enough.” She expects that people to whom she’s referred work will also pass along work to her at some point. In contrast, Poole will request (or pay, if she’s on the receiving end of a referral) a 10 percent fee for referring work to her colleagues. What she tells clients is that she’ll train the subcontractors on their style. “You show that you’re putting skin in the game and working to maintain your reputation,” she said. This fee applies only to the first project involving that particular editor–client pair, and on subsequent projects, they can work out their own payment terms.
To find out about other freelancers, MacMillan relies on her network and looks at how people present themselves on their websites or their profiles in the Online Directory of Editors. She’ll also recommend editors she’s mentored formally or informally. “I would never refer work to someone whose work I didn’t know or that I didn’t know personally,” she said.
Poole draws on her network of editorial trainees and sometimes runs focused searches on LinkedIn to find the right person for the job. She keeps track of people’s specializations so that she’ll have someone to recommend if a client is looking for that expertise.
What about training? “We do train in-house entry-level editors,” said Saller. “We don’t train freelancers. We can tell almost instantly if someone is a likely candidate. We require experience with other university presses, and we can tell from their cover letter and resume if they have good communication skills.” The University of Chicago Press will train freelancers on its process and may ask editors to edit a trial chapter, which the press will pay for.
MacMillan will work with a colleague through the first or second project and will always provide feedback, particularly if the project didn’t go as well as she’d hoped. “ If I didn’t tell them where they went wrong, I wouldn’t be fair to them,” she said. “Quite frankly, we’re all off sometimes. It’s best to remain humble and remember that.”
Likewise, Poole is invested in helping her associate editor further her career and regularly gives her pointers. “If you hire freelancers, give them feedback,” she said. Rather than simply never hiring someone again, critical but constructive feedback means that you care and want the editor to get better. “You have to separate business and friendship,” said Poole. “Let’s talk business and not take it personally.”
“We also learn from more junior editors by how they react to feedback,” added MacMillan. “They’ll say, ‘I did it this way because…’ and sometimes that ‘because’ will make you think. The learning experience goes both ways.”
Sometimes the problems may have been that you, as the hiring editor, didn’t clearly communicate expectations or standards. Lee d’Anjou, in the audience, suggested always using written contracts to define the project scope and expectations. EAC’s Professional Editorial Standards may also help you define the tasks you’re hoping your subcontractor will do.
The University of Chicago Press highly values editors who work independently. “We do appreciate when people ask questions,” said Saller, “like asking if something needs to be done.” But occasionally some freelancers ask too much, too often. Knowing when to ask and when to do is part of editorial judgment that comes with experience.
Editors looking for subcontract work should be careful about how they approach other editors. Being presumptuous or demanding—for example, saying “Can I see your client list?” or “Will you send me work?”—will make editors bristle. Poole especially dislikes people who write, “I’d be happy to take your overflow work.” “I don’t have overflow work,” she said. “If I can’t take the work, I don’t do it. A better approach would be to say, ‘Can I support you to expand your business?’”
Both Poole and MacMillan said that they’re always transparent with their clients about whether they’ve used subcontractors.
I was disappointed to discover that the University of Chicago Press doesn’t credit its editors, neither in-house nor freelance. Last year, what turned out to be a dream client approached me because she’d seen my name on a publication for a similar organization. I’ve written about credit lines before: they cost the publisher nothing but can be extremely meaningful to the editors, designers, and indexers who work on a project and can use it as part of their portfolio.
For more on subcontracting, see my summary of a related panel discussion we held at an EAC-BC branch meeting.
The Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources (CCCOER) hosted a webinar about a few platforms for authoring and delivering open educational resources (OER). CCCOER was founded almost eight years ago to expand access to openly licensed material, support faculty choice, and improve student success. It has more than 250 member colleges in twenty-one states. The organization understands that faculty need user-friendly authoring tools, institutions had to integrate OER into their existing course management infrastructures, and students had to be able to easily search and use OER. Representatives from three OER platforms explained their tools in this webinar. I’ll cover all three, but my focus will be on Clint Lalonde’s presentation about Pressbooks Textbook, because it’s the most relevant to publishing in BC. (Slides of the session are on Slideshare.)
Courseload Engage, presented by Etienne Pelaprat, User Experience Director at Courseload Inc.
Courseload is a platform that offers students access to text-based OER, video, audio, journal articles, library content and catalogues, proprietary content, and other uploaded content through a single application that can be integrated into existing learning management systems. Courseload has the flexibility of allowing institutions to curate their own content based on learning objectives, and it manages all of the metadata (including library catalogue data and ONIX feeds). This metadata allows institutions to generate custom catalogues and course packs, and the system tracks content use via analytics that may help institutions optimize discoverability and respond to student demand to improve their learning outcomes.
PressBooks Textbook, presented by Clint Lalonde, Open Education Manager at BCcampus
BCcampus’s Open Textbook Project was launched to provide BC post-secondary students with access to free textbooks in the forty subject areas with the highest enrolment. Rather than start from scratch, said Lalonde, BCcampus wanted to take advantage of existing textbook content already in the commons. The focus would be on adaptation, although they would also create some new content.
For students, the open textbooks had to be free for students to use and retain and available in several formats. For faculty, open textbooks had to be high-quality material that would be easy to find and adapt.
Hugh McGuire had predicted that the book would merge with the web and that books would be created web first; he founded PressBooks with that idea in mind. PressBooks is an open source WordPress plugin that allows authors to write once but output in many different formats, including HTML, EPUB, and PDF.
BCcampus worked with a programmer to customize PressBooks for easy textbook authoring, and the result is the PressBooks Textbook plug-in. It works together with Hypothes.is to allow students and faculty to annotate content. Lalonde and his team also added an application program interface (API) that facilitates searching and sharing with others on different platforms and allows the textbooks to become more than just static content. Unfortunately, Lalonde explained, PressBooks Textbook isn’t fully open source at the moment, because it relies on a proprietary PDF output engine, the license for which institutions would have to pay.
BCcampus’s next steps with this plug-in include
- integrating accessibility features via the FLOE Project
- finding an open source PDF engine to replace Prince XML
- expanding the output formats to include Word-compatible ODT files.
Open Assembly, presented by founder and CEO Domi Enders
Non-traditional students and adjunct instructors are less likely to be reached by OER initiatives because they may work remotely much of the time and are poorly integrated into an institution. As a result, they have limited access to their peer communities. Domi Enders wanted to develop open learning system that would not only give users access to OER but also give students or adjunct faculty the continuity and agency they need to remain engaged with their learning and teaching. Open Assembly can be integrated into existing learning management systems and allows users to collaborate in content curation. By offering users a space to meet and create new knowledge, it facilitates peer-to-peer learning in a way that helps remote students and faculty stay connected.
As part of the Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia’s Read Local BC campaign, Laraine Coates of UBC Press hosted a panel discussion on writing about First Nations, featuring:
- Paige Raibmon, an associate professor in UBC’s history department and co-author, with Elsie Paul and Harmony Johnson, of Written As I Remember It: Teachings from the Life of a Sliammon Elder;
- Jean Barman, a nationally recognized historian, professor emeritus at UBC, and author of French Canadians, Furs, and Indigenous Women in the Making of the Pacific Northwest; and
- Jennifer Kramer, associate professor of anthropology, Pacific Northwest curator at the Museum of Anthropology, and co-editor of Native Art of the Northwest Coast: A History of Changing Ideas.
After Coates acknowledged that the evening’s event was taking place on unceded Coast Salish territories, she launched into the program by asking each panellist to describe their books.
Written as I Remember It was Elsie Paul’s idea, said Raibmon, and consists primarily of teachings and historical stories from Paul’s life. Paul, one of the last remaining mother-tongue speakers of Sliammon, wanted to create a booklet of teachings to share with her family. Raibmon thought Paul’s stories would interest a wider audience, and they decided to work together, along with Paul’s granddaughter, Harmony Johnson, to turn the booklet into a UBC Press book, which was organized into chapters based on key themes, including grief, education, spirituality, and pregnancy. “All of these stories were told and lived in a completely different language,” said Raibmon. “Elsie has lived a fascinating life, and she has a lot of interesting stories to tell.”
Jean Barman has written about BC history before, but “I’d always acted as if French Canadians didn’t exist in the province,” she said. She wanted to redress this deficiency and find out more about them. “That’s the nice thing about being an academic,” she said. “I get paid to find out!” As she did research for the book, her focus expanded from the French Canadians themselves to the fur trade that brought them to the province and the indigenous women who kept them here.
Jennifer Kramer co-edited Native Art of the Northwest Coast with art historian Charlotte Townsend-Gault and Nuuchaanulth historian Ḳi-ḳe-in. They wanted to challenge the “one monolithic idea of what native Northwest Coast art is”—the red, black, and white ovoids and formlines we so often see. The book unearths 250 years’ worth of commentary about Northwest Coast art from multiple perspectives, beginning chronologically with writings by Captain James Cook and including contemporary native artist–authors, to show the heterogeneity and richness of the region’s artistic past and present.
Coates noted that although the three books are different, they all deal with Aboriginal lives and legacy. She asked the panellists what they learned in their research.
Barman said that although over 90 percent of the men and all of the women she researched for the book were illiterate, she could still find traces of them in fur trade records or in the work of other people who had written about them. Barman looked at the relationships Aboriginal groups forged with the newcomers—particularly the way indigenous men encouraged their daughters to interact with the fur traders so that they could get access to trade goods—as well as the motivations French Canadian men had to stay rather than return to Quebec.
Raibmon said that unlike Barman’s project, hers “came with a workaround of the problem of finding traces.” Elsie Paul invited Raibmon to pull together audio material to create a book and allowed her to learn from the inside out, interconnecting teachings with history.
Kramer’s goal with her book was to consciously and actively address the problem that the majority of writing about Northwest Coast art has been by non-native authors. She wanted to bring in as many voices as possible to undermine the narratives repeated by Western, non-Aboriginal authors. “As an anthropologist, my number-one concern is, ‘Who am I to write about someone who isn’t me?’ We have this chronic problem or paradox: museums represent people who want to represent themselves. How do we get around that power imbalance?”
Kramer described the critical shift in the 1990s toward reflexivity, making the research process open to reflection and collaboration. “First Nations don’t have just one perspective, either,” said Kramer. “They’ll have many opinions. There’s no one way to write this. It’s not about correcting an incorrect history—it’s about acknowledging all the ways of knowing.” Kramer saw the draft of the book as a living, breathing archive, and she expressed apprehension about taking it to press and fixing it to a page. “It might have been better as an online blog, like Wikipedia, with many people engaging. We’re in this engagement together, and we’re co-creating these products of representation.” She also mentioned the discomfort that some of the artists felt, having the huge responsibility of representing not only their own artwork but also their culture, by extension.
Raibmon’s experience uncovered a bit of that tension as well. “Elsie did not get permission from the Sliammon people to write the book. She didn’t want to be seen as taking authority or speaking for her community.” She added that the university set up procedures requiring researchers who work with First Nations communities to get band approval, but “that’s not always appropriate. Elsie found it offensive that UBC wanted to get band council agreement so that she could tell her story.”
As a historian, said Barman, “I carefully document where all the bits and pieces come from so that others can add to them or challenge them.” She wants to make it clear that she’s telling a story, not the story, and there will always be pieces that are right to some and wrong to others. But if we don’t risk criticism and put your work out there, we’ll never learn, and our knowledge will never grow. “You’re doing something, but at least you’re doing something.”
Barman described a perennial difficulty that comes with historical research and writing: what to do about names. “What do we mean by the Northwest Coast?” To Americans, it includes Alaska and Washington but sometimes also Oregon and northern California. “What do you do before we had borders? What was something named in the past, and how have names changed? These issues can get you into conflict.”
Kramer agreed that names carry a lot of weight, and people can react strongly to them. She wanted her book to take an unconventional look at Northwest Coast art, which would naturally entail unconventional names and terms, yet still be discoverable to people using more familiar search terms. “That one would be accused of cultural appropriation is always a fear,” she said. Many First Nations groups have a very real fear of theft, given the historical theft of their land, their children, their sovereignty. But she had to grapple with the reality that no one member of the community could tell her that what she was doing was acceptable or give her a blank cheque. “You have to know you’re doing it with a good heart, that your intentions are clean.”
Kramer asked Raibmon if she had a voice in her book or if she felt as though she had to keep quiet and let Paul take the lead. The approach to narrative was different from her usual approaches, said Raibmon, but “the goal was to get Elsie’s voice on the page.” She still made a historical argument, but in an engaging way that foreground’s Paul’s voice. “I hope people who read the book will still see the historical connections, the connecting themes.” She added that she didn’t consider herself to be the historian and Paul to be her subject. “We were two historians working together, from different historical traditions. Personally I didn’t feel any tension from letting Elsie decide what topics would go in.”
“I didn’t actually understand why certain topics were off limits,” Raibmon continued. “Why are certain stories so important? There were chapters that were super important to them, but I didn’t understand it at the time. I learned how long it can take to let go of our assumptions that block our understanding… I understand now. But if my authority had trumped Elsie’s, I wouldn’t even have remembered the question, let along learn what I’ve learned.
“Elsie had stories of other families, but she didn’t feel that was appropriate to have in the book. She didn’t want to assume the stories would offend them. Cultural difference is understanding human difference.”
What do writers really think of editors? Journalist and editor Jenny Lee moderated a discussion on that topic with authors Margo Bates and Daniel Francis at last week’s EAC-BC meeting. Bates, self-published author of P.S. Don’t Tell Your Mother and The Queen of a Gated Community, is president of the Vancouver branch of the Canadian Authors Association. Francis is a columnist for Geist magazine and a prolific author of two dozen books, including the Encyclopedia of British Columbia and the Connections Canada social studies textbook.
Francis told us that in the 1980s, he’d had one of his books published by a major Toronto-based publisher, who asked him about his next project. Francis pitched the concept for what became Imaginary Indian: the image of the Indian in Canadian culture back to 1850. His Toronto publisher turned it down, concerned about appropriation of voice. “I took the idea to friends in Vancouver,” said Francis, “and in some ways it’s my most successful book.” He learned from the experience that he’d rather work with smaller publishers close to home, many of which were run by people he considered friends. He thought his book with the larger publisher would be the ticket, but it was among his worst-selling titles, and he was particularly dismayed that the editor didn’t seem to have paid much attention to his text. “To me, this is a collaborative process, working with an editor,” said Francis. “I’m aware that I’m no genius and that this is not a work of genius,” but his editor “barely even read the thing.” He found the necessary depth in editing when he worked with his friends at smaller presses. “Friends can be frank,” Francis said.
Bates, whose P.S. Don’t Tell Your Mother has sold more than 7,500 copies, became familiar with how much editors can do when she hired them through her work in public relations. For her own writing, Bates knew she could take care of most of the copy editing and proofreading but wanted an objective but understanding professional who would advise her about structure and subject matter. She looked for someone who would tighten up her book and make it saleable. “I’m not that smart a writer that I can go without help,” she said. “I wouldn’t do anything without an editor.” In fact, she allocated the largest portion of her publishing budget to editing. After speaking with several candidates, Bates selected an editor who understood the social context of her book and help her “tell the story of prejudice in a humorous way.”
Frances Peck mentioned an article she read about a possible future where self-publishers would have editors’ imprints on their books—in other words, editors’ reputations would lend marketability to a book. “Is that a dream?” she asked. “The sooner, the better, as far as I’m concerned,” Bates said. “There’s a lot of crap out there,” she added, referring to story lines, point of view, grammar, spelling and other dimensions of writing that an editor could help authors improve.
What sets good editors apart from the rest? Francis says that he most appreciates those who have good judgment about when to correct something and when to query. Some strategies for querying suggested by the audience include referring often to the reader (“Will your reader understand?”) and referring to the text as something separate from the author (i.e., using “it says on page 26” rather than “you say on page 26”). Bates said that she really appreciated when her editor expressed genuine enthusiasm for her story. Her editor had told her, “I’m rooting for the characters, and so are your fans.”
Lee asked whether the popular strategy of the sandwich—beginning and ending an editorial letter with compliments, with the potentially ego-deflating critique in the middle—was effective. Francis said, “I hope I’m beyond the need for coddling. I guess you have to know who you’re dealing with, when you’re an editor.” Some editors in the room said that the sandwich is a reliable template for corresponding with someone with whom you haven’t yet established trust. We have to be encouraging as well as critical.
Both Bates and Francis urged editors to stop beating around the bush. Francis said, “You get insulted all the time as a textbook writer. You have to grow a pretty thick skin.” That said, Francis wasn’t a big fan of the book’s process of editing by committee and says it’s one reason he stopped writing textbooks. In addition to producing a coherent text, the textbook’s author and editors had to adhere to strict representation guidelines (e.g., the balance of males to females depicted in photographs had to be exactly 1:1).
Lee asked the two authors how they found their editors. Francis said that his publishers always assign his editors, and “I get the editor that I get.” So far his editors have worked out for him, but if he’d had any profound differences, he’d have approached the publisher about it or, in extreme cases, parted ways with the publisher.
Bates said that for self-published authors, the onus is on them to do their research and look at publications an editor has previously worked on. “There will always be inexperienced writers who don’t see the need for editors,” she said, but at meetings of the Federation of BC Writers and the Canadian Authors Association, she always advocates that authors get an editor. Bates suggested that the Editors’ Association of Canada forge closer ties with writers’ organizations so that we could readily educate authors about what editors do.
In fall 2012, the BC Open Textbook Project was launched to reduce the financial burden on post-secondary students, who spend an average of $1,200 per year on textbooks. As part of Open Education Week, BCcampus hosted a webinar about the project as well as the associated BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit, created to help people who develop learning resources to make them as accessible as possible from the outset.
Open Textbook Project (presented by Amanda Coolidge)
In 2012, the BC Open Textbook Project received a grant of $1 million to develop open textbooks for the top-forty enrolled subject areas. It received another $1 million in 2014 to create resources for skills and trades training. BC has now committed to working together with Alberta and Saskatchewan to develop and share open textbooks.
Many people think open textbooks are e-textbooks, but what makes them open is their Creative Commons (CC) license: they can be copied, modified, and redistributed for no charge. Instructors can therefore change open textbooks to suit their courses, and students are able to get these books for free. In two years the project has saved more than five thousand students over $700,000 in textbook costs.
BCcampus carried out the Open Textbook Project in three phases:
- First, they collected existing textbooks with CC licenses and asked faculty to review them.
- Second, they modified these books based on faculty reviews. At the end of this process, they had covered thirty-six of the top-forty subject areas.
- Finally, they funded the creation of four textbooks from scratch.
Open textbooks are now being used in fourteen post-secondary institutions across the province, and BCcampus has eighty-one textbooks in its collection. To create these materials, they use Pressbooks, a plugin that lets you write once and publish to many different formats.
Accessibility testing (presented by Tara Robertson)
Tara Robertson helps run CAPER-BC, which provides alternate formats of learning materials to twenty institutions across the province. They specialize in accommodations, including remediating textbooks for people with print disabilities. One reason the Open Textbook Project is exciting, said Robertson, is that instead of taking something broken and fixing it, she now has the opportunity to make the textbooks accessible from the start.
Seven students with special needs volunteered to test the open textbook resources for accessibility, reading selected chapters from textbooks in five subject areas and offering feedback on their usability. Robertson also ran a focus group with five students. She found recruiting testers challenging, and she acknowledges that the students who participated in the focus group, all of whom had visual impairments, were not representative of the many students that had other print disabilities. Still, the testers offered a lot of constructive feedback.
The chapters the students reviewed each had features that might interfere with assistive technology like text-to-speech software: formatted poetry, tables, images, quizzes, and so on. Testing revealed that the software would skip over embedded YouTube videos, so the textbooks would have to include URLs; formatted poems were problematic when enlarged because readers would have to scroll to read each line; and layout sometimes led to a confused reading order.
Robertson sees the accessibility consultation with students as an ongoing process to refine accessibility best practices.
BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit (presented by Sue Doner)
BCcampus has just launched an accessibility toolkit for faculty, content creators, instructional designers, and others who “don’t know what they don’t know about accessible design.” Their aim is to build faculty capacity for universal design and to highlight the distinctions between accommodations and accessibility. Accommodations involve individualizing resources and providing alternative learning options for students who identify as having a disability. If we were proactive about creating materials that were accessible from day one, we’d have no need for accommodations.
Universal design recognizes that different students learn differently—some prefer visual materials, whereas others prefer text, for example. It offers students multiple access points to the content, and it’s better for all students, not just those who register with their disability resource centre. For example, aging students may appreciate being able to enlarge text, and international students may benefit from captions to visual material.
The toolkit offers plain language guidelines for creating different types of textbook content with a student-centred focus, using user personas to inform key design concepts and best practices. It asks content developers to think about what assumptions they’re making of the end users and how those assumptions might affect the way they present the material.
It might take a bit of time for creators of some types of content to catch up with all accessibility features—for example, video and audio should, as a rule, come with transcripts, but a lot of YouTube content doesn’t, and you may run into copyright issues if you try to offer material in different formats.
The next steps for BCcampus are to incorporate the toolkit into the development process for all new open textbooks they create, to modify existing textbooks for accessibility, and to encourage the province’s post-secondary community to formally adopt these guidelines. The toolkit, like the open textbooks, are available under a CC license and can be thought of as a living document that will change and grow as different types of content (e.g., math) becomes amenable to accessible design.
Doner sees these steps as “an opportunity to create a community of practice—a new literacy skill.”
This webinar (along with others offered during Open Education Week) is archived on the BCcampus site.